Monday, May 31, 2010

Another avoidable tragedy for Gaza

The loss of life on the flotilla attempting to move from Cyprus to Gaza is tragic, but it was also completely avoidable. This is a topic certain to inflame passions, but there were a few points I felt I had to make.

Gaza is under a declared blockade; one declared not by Israel alone, but rather by Israel and Egypt. While Israeli warships and troops carried out the blockade in this instance it is important to remember that a Palestinian ally supports the blockade. The flotilla's organizers refused to follow the protocol of the blockade, docking in either Egypt or Israel to have their cargo inspected and then delivered overland to Gaza. They wanted to make a statement, and they did that.

Obviously the primary focus of the blockade is weapons smuggling. Currently what is known as dual-use material is also restricted from shipment to Gaza under the terms of the blockade, however, as a result of the risk of it being used to support violence and terrorism. Piping and concrete are harmless in and of themselves, but they can become rockets and bunkers. As it stands today the blockade is a hardship on the people of Gaza, but food and medicine are exempt from the blockade and it doesn't add unduly to the humanitarian crisis that is Gaza.

The terms of the Camp David agreements removed Israeli troops from Gaza. they also forbade heavy weaponry to the Palestinian government of Gaza, something that Hamas has been reluctant at best to comply with. (Hence the blockade) Until Hamas realizes that giving up certain kinds of weaponry is one of the prices for peace, just as Egypt is not allowed heavy weaponry and more than a certain number of light soldiers in the Sinai, then the peace process will remain stalled. Israel, of course, needs to make concessions as well, with the most egregious violation on its part of the peace terms being the continued building of settlements on Palestinian land. This is, however, a separate issue.

Running a declared blockade means that you know there is a real possibility of a military response, and by declaring your intention and timeline beforehand you are basically fishing for one. Last night 3 Israeli naval vessels intercepted the flotilla, and presumably were unable to convince them to turn around or dock for inspection in accordance with the blockade. These vessels rightly decided that sinking the ships would be excessive, and elected to use a much lower scale of force. Interestingly the information I've seen indicates that all vessels complied without violence except one, so we'll have to see whether that case involved excessive force or real provocation. Sadly the facts may actually matter very little as the overwhelming majority of people will simply fit this episode into whichever pre-conceived framework they want to.

As a final thought there will be calls for the UN to take action against Israel as a result of this, and the question that I have is why did Israel's opponents give up on the UN to pressure Israel and Egypt to take down the blockade?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Link to Sue Huff on Expense Accounts

This is a link to a post by Sue Huff (an Edmonton School Trustee) on expense accounts and political culture. Well said, Sue.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A night with the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project

Tonight I attended a panel put on by the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project here in Calgary.

I should be clear that while I am not a supporter of the ADRP or their specific aims I certainly endorse their passion for Alberta. In addition I’d spent the rest of the day mired in re-working a chapter section on the development of the Bank of England’s 1925 American credit for the return to gold, so some political debate and contact with other human beings was more than welcome. In brief the ARDP is an organization devoted to two goals. In the short term a cooperative alliance or non-compete agreement among opposition parties here in Alberta, which they refer to as progressive parties. The ultimate purpose of this alliance, and their second goal, is to institute a system of proportional representation here in Alberta.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Dr. Avalon Roberts (former Liberal Candidate), Dr. Phil Elder (of the ADRP) and Dr. Doreen Barrie (University of Calgary) standing in for a panelist trapped in Edmonton by the weather. Each panelist spoke for 15 minutes to an audience of approximately 50 people. Typical of most such events the crowd was decidedly monochromatic, well off, well-educated and older, but what the group lacked in variety it made up for in lively engagement. The formal Q & A lasted longer than the talks, and many people stayed later to continue conversing. I don’t know whether the event generated any support for the ADRP, but it certainly succeeded in generating a worthwhile and engaging couple of hours.

As I couldn’t take notes I will simply note some of the themes discussed by the panelists. Dr. Roberts and Dr. Barrie both moved over similar territory; the focus was on declining voter turnout, increasing disengagement from the process, the travails of the current opposition parties and the inadequacies of the provincial government. Dr. Elder spoke on the ADRP’s plans and reasoning, which I will omit as you can find the basics on their website above. The one statement he made that I need to set out is the assertion that the opposition parties here in Alberta have broadly common policies. Questioners of note included Donn Lovett, formerly of the Alberta Liberals and now involved with MLA Dave Taylor, The President of the Alberta Liberal Party and MLA Harry Chase. When he spoke Mr. Chase seemed to be saying that he supported the ideas of the ADRP, but they could never work because of the NDP’s unwillingness to work with the Liberals. Mr. Sansotta’s stepped up later to address a critic of the ALP with some humour, but regrettably did not address any of the issues raised by the panel or other commenter's. Mr. Lovett made a couple of trenchant points about the layout of the Alberta electorate, and the requirements as he saw them of a successful party in the centre.

I had to ask a few questions. To begin I took exception to the repeated assertion that politics in Alberta is moribund or unchanging. What other jurisdiction in Canada has two new parties like our Wild Rose and Alberta Parties, not to mention activist groups like Reboot and the ADRP itself all coming forward at once? Secondly I pointed out that disillusionment might well have more to do with the inaccessibility of parties, and the tiny percentage of the population that belong to one, than the length of the current government. I couldn’t resist noting that most opposition candidates in Alberta are already ‘paper’ candidates, so the plan of the ADRP really only has relevance in perhaps 12-20 ridings in the province, even accepting (which I certainly do not) that the opposition vote could be united. Finally the idea that the Liberals, NDP and Greens share common policies demonstrates far more about the failings of those organizations to define themselves than it does about their commonalities.

So what do I think at the end of the night? For myself I am not sold on the virtues of proportional representation as a system. Provided the basic political culture is healthy it seems like a solution looking for a problem, and if the culture is unhealthy there are a whole new crop of potential abuses – every system has them. As for the idea of non-compete agreement, well, I oppose it on grounds of both principle and practice. To begin with the ADRP is so far from the consciousness of the mass electorate as to be a minor factor in voting intentions at best, so even if such an alliance were signed it could not deliver the votes to one candidate. I also don’t believe that the parties are in fact interchangeable, certainly not to their supporters. In addition I as a voter oppose the limitation of my options, and view diversity of competition as a healthy thing. Besides, with the rise of the Wild Rose it won’t just be the centre/left vote that splits in the next election, will it? All in all I feel that the ADRP’s plan is a poor substitute for a well-organized and well-executed opposition party or two.

That said I think having groups like this coming alive and working to raise awareness and engage people with the system, and trying to change the system, is an essential element of that healthy political culture I talked about earlier. I wish the ADRP people all success in bringing their plan before a wider audience, I just hope that it isn’t adopted!